Queen Elizabeth I gave the greatest speech in the English language by a serving monarch, one that Queen Elizabeth II never sought to copy. On 9 August 1588 Elizabeth I addressed the troops at Tilbury on the eve of what they all feared might be an invasion of Britain by the Spanish. The Queen confronted the prejudice held by all the men gathered there – that it was absurd for a woman to be the commander of the armed forces. “I may have the weak and feeble body of a woman” she said, “but I have the heart and stomach of a King, and a King of England too.”
In seven decades of public life, Queen Elizabeth II spoke rarely and never said anything as memorable as that. This is, in part, a wise reflection of Elizabeth II not being as important, politically and diplomatically, as Elizabeth I. The monarchy is a different institution now, a backdrop and a source of reassurance – but no longer the locus of political power.
But there is another, more notable difference. A statement of defiant feminism in 1588 is remarkable. By the second half of the 20th century, defiant feminism had become a movement. Yet, in all her time on the throne, there is only one instance of Queen Elizabeth II referring to her status as a woman, as a Queen.
As long ago as 1966, the Queen made a passing reference in her Christmas broadcast to the movement that was at the time known as women’s lib. “It is difficult to realise,” she said then, “that it was less than 50 years ago that women in Britain were first given the vote.” She went on to state, rather more emphatically than was usual: “Yet, in spite of these disabilities, it has been women who have breathed gentleness and care into the harsh progress of mankind.” It’s a fascinating thought and quite an idea to leave hanging for more than half a century. But in her public speech, at least, the Queen never returned to the question.
[see also: How the Queen changed Britain]
Though being a powerful woman was not one of them, the Queen did have a few recurrent motifs in her Christmas broadcasts. The first was a sophisticated skill in using contemporary events as a departure point without ever saying anything about them. The death of Nehru and the imprisonment of Nelson Mandela in 1964, the assassination of Martin Luther King, the troubles in Northern Ireland, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the 2008 financial crisis are all alluded to, sometimes obliquely, but we are left to infer what, if anything, the Queen thought about any of them beyond her expression of support for those who were suffering.
The motif of suffering was usually refracted through the topic of family, through which she always sought to close the distance between the monarch and the people: I may have the heart and stomach of a Queen, but I have a weak and feeble family just like you. The idea of a family on the throne, the family of the nation, is a modern novelty, so in those addresses in which the Queen talked about her family the script was always metaphorical.
If the gradual use of family from the 1960s onwards was a novelty, the two other staples of Elizabethan rhetoric – faith and service – were decidedly old-fashioned. British politicians do not do God but the Queen does. She often asked people to pray for her. In 2000 she spoke of Christianity as “the framework in which I try to lead my life” and in 2014 she devoted most of the broadcast to the life of Jesus Christ as an inspiration and an anchor. This espousal of faith is linked to the notion of service. On her 21st birthday in 1947, the then Princess Elizabeth, speaking in Cape Town, talked of dedicating her life to the service of the nation. It was a theme which rang through the years.
Apart from the Christmas broadcasts, words from the Queen often signalled a crisis, and she very rarely otherwise gave televised addresses to the nation. In 1991 the Queen addressed the troops engaged in the first Gulf War. In 1997 she spoke “as your Queen and as a grandmother”, to address the growing popular sense that she was indifferent to the death of the Princess of Wales. Then, in 2020, deliberately evoking the example of her father’s speech on VE Day, the Queen recorded an address on the coronavirus pandemic that ended with the war-time message of “we’ll meet again”. There was also one famous descent into personal analysis. At a dinner at London’s Guildhall in November 1992 that commemorated her 40th year on the throne, the Queen, weighed down with a heavy cold, miserably looked back on an “annus horribilis” that featured three of her four children divorcing or separating from their spouses and a fire at Windsor Castle that prompted an unwelcome discussion about who should pay for the repairs.
But, these occasional lapses into crisis apart, the Queen’s rhetoric was almost always optimistic to the point of naivety. There is only one dispute with a prime minister, as far as we know. In 1973 Ted Heath took strong objection to the Queen’s plan to mention power cuts and the three-day week. After a battle, she dropped the reference and said something gently uplifting instead. “I have dwelt on the happier side of life in my Christmas broadcasts,” she said in 1990. No politician is given the dispensation to be so joyously banal. In August 1957 John Grigg wrote a piece titled “The Monarchy Today” in which he dared to say that the personality conveyed by the Queen “is that of a priggish schoolgirl, captain of the hockey team, a prefect, and a recent candidate for Confirmation”. If she was a candidate then, she has had that confirmation ever since because nobody prominent really complained about her again. Like the queues that are snaking through London, it shows that the British monarchy is always the exception that is born to rule.